Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on March 3rd has created a series of problems that the Israeli Prime Minister would never have had to deal with had he simply declined House speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint session of Congress.
The speech has created a raft of issues on both sides of the US-Israel relationship, problems that were the sole creation of the speaking gig itself.
Critics allege that Netanyahu is using plaint US Republicans to undermine a sitting president’s foreign policy. Others allege that Boehner is trying to give Netanyahu a high-profile campaign stop in the hopes that one of Obama’s most eloquent public adversaries remains in power after Israel’s upcoming elections.
The White House views the speech as an unforgivable escalation of an already fraught relationship between US and Israeli leaders. Whether this crisis was the creation of the White House or Netanyahu is almost besides the point. Damage has already been done: intelligence sharing is reportedly being curtailed, and Netanyahu has been snubbed by President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry, the last of whom is scheduled to meet with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif the same day as Netanyahu’s speech.
Tomorrow’s speech makes little sense on the face of it, and as the Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren notes, it isn’t clear exactly what Israel gains from Netanyahu’s gambit, or even how the address could conceivably alter the course of the Iranian nuclear standoff.
But the speech makes its own kind of sense in light of Netanyahu’s own record as prime minister. He has switched positions on virtually every major security-related issue he’s faced — except for the one he’ll be speaking about to Congress.
Netanyahu was first elected Prime Minister in 1996, at a time when Israelis were already wary of whether they would see a peace dividend for the Oslo Accords, signed 3 years earlier.
Netanyahu attempted to assuage right-wing fears over what the accords would mean for Israel’s national identity and strategic depth, most notably by reversing his predecessor Shimon Peres’s decision and opening a controversial tunnel running along the base of the Temple Mount in 1996, sparking deadly rioting.
But Netanyahu also signed the 1997 Hebron Protocol, an agreement that required Israel to redeploy its military forces in the namesake West Bank city, which is widely regarded as the second-holiest place in Judaism.
Netanyahu’s triangulation continued during his second stint as Prime Minister, which began in 2009. His government has authorised thousands of new residential units in West Bank communities, and provocatively announced new building licenses during a US vice presidential visit to Jerusalem in 2010.
At the same time, Netanyahu eventually agreed to the first West Bank construction freeze in Israel’s history as a precondition for entering proximity talks with the Palestinians in 2009 — talks that went nowhere.
Netanyahu has been cagey in committing his government to a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suggesting he would only agree to the existence of a de-militarised Palestinian state that agreed to Israeli annexation of certain sections of the West Bank. But his government agreed to release scores of high-value Palestinian prisoners just to sustain peace talks in 2013 and the following year — once again providing a concession to the Palestinians just to enter into fruitless peace talks.
The Israeli Prime Minister allowed a rival center-right faction to leave his Likud Party and fired a deputy defence minister rather than order a full-scale military operation against Hamas over the summer, only committing to a large-scale operation after a multi-day rocket bombardment on Israel’s densely-populated coastal plane. He also authorised the release of 1,027 prisoners to secure the freedom of Hamas hostage Gilad Shalit.
Netanyahu has often sparred with Turkey but caved to longstanding US and Turkish demands to apologise for an Israeli commando raid that killed 9 Turkish citizens attempting to infiltrate the Gaza Strip on behalf of a Hamas-linked charity.
Netanyahu has a highly oppositional relationship with Obama, but has eventually accommodated nearly all of the US president’s demands, from the Turkey apology to the settlement freeze to entering into negotiations with the Palestinians to refraining from launching bombing runs on Iran’s nuclear program.
Just about the only constant in Netanyahu’s career has been his full-throated opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He raised warnings about Iran’s nuclear infrastructure as early as 1995, and warned in 2009 that Tehran was one or two years away from being able to build a nuclear weapon.
Later, Netanyahu’s rhetoric on the Iranian program helped keep up pressure on Tehran by appearing to push the US towards a more assertive role in penalising the country for the growth of its illicit nuclear program. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who is a persistent critic of Israel’s prime minister, credited him with playing the “bad cop” to Obama, writing in 2012 that the leaders “have accomplished something extraordinary together over the past two years.”
Netanyahu’s consistency on the issue stems from a longstanding sense that a nuclear Iran is the only actor that can actually threaten Israel’s existence. Over the past 60 years, Israel has defeated a series of conventional and unconventional military threats to the state’s existence.
Netanyahu reasons that a nuclear Iran would put the military force most threatening to Israel — Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported Shi’ite terrorist group — under Tehran’s nuclear umbrella, amounting to a security and political challenge categorically different from anything Israel has faced up to this point.
Netanyahu believes that it is his historic duty to do everything in his power to prevent Iran from even putting itself in a position to acquire a nuclear weapon. He does not want to go down at the Prime Minister that fumbled the issue that he’s personally deemed most pressing to the survival of the world’s only Jewish state.
If tomorrow’s speech backfires, it won’t be the only time that this sense of responsibility has led the Israeli prime minister astray. Netanyahu’s cartoon bomb stunt at the UN in 2012 galvanised international opposition to Iran’s nuclear program. But it also undermined Israel’s position by communicating the country’s exact weaponization breakout red lines to Tehran — limits on high-enriched uranium accumulation that Iran has been careful not to surpass.
But Netanyahu’s mistakes were made out of an unerring sense of mission. And at this point, the leader who is arguably most responsible for putting the Iranian nuclear program on the international agenda believes that the situation is dire enough to warrant a move as risky as the Congressional speech.
Iran is the issue Netanyahu cares most about and by far the issue on which he’s been the most resistant to compromise. If tomorrow’s speech turns out to be a mistake, it will be one made in good faith — and out of intense and arguably warranted concern over where the negotiating process with Tehran is heading.